The Best Play I Ever Made is a new series where athletes break down the (you guessed it) best play they ever made. Our first entry is from U.S. Women’s National Team midfielder Megan Rapinoe:
“F***, we’re about to go out in the quarterfinals. We’re about to bomb out of this tournament right now. Please, please just give us one more possession.” That’s what was going through my head as the seconds ticked down on our 2011 World Cup run. We had just run ourselves ragged for 122 minutes in the July heat. Brazil, our opponents, were like the perfect sports movie villains. After they took the lead in extra time, they stayed on the ground for a few seconds after every tackle, doing everything they could to waste time. It’s part of their footballing culture. I don’t really blame them now, but during the game, as the seconds ticked off, I was furious.
With just about 60 seconds left of stoppage time, Brazil controlled the ball deep in our end. I’d seen this play out hundreds of times in my career — I knew what was coming. Brazil would run the ball to the corner flag and play keep away to kill the game. It was absolute agony. It felt like every second was a gift. The whistle was coming.
Only this time, it didn’t. Our defender Ali Kreiger won possession in our penalty area and turned upfield. Instantly, the atmosphere in the stadium changed. There was a wave of palpable energy that you could literally feel.
All we had to do was go 100 yards and score without Brazil winning possession — the soccer equivalent of a Hail Mary. No big deal, right? Ali passed the ball up to our midfielder Carli Lloyd right around the halfway line and I just started sprinting to get myself as wide as possible. It felt like she had it at her feet for five hours. But it was actually just three touches. On TV, you could see me wide open on the wing at the top of your screen. People later asked me if I realized how open I was in the heat of the moment. The answer is yes. In my head I was saying what everyone was probably screaming at their TV. Oh my god, oh my god, pass me the ball.
What I couldn’t see on the field was that Carli’s run was genius because it drew three defenders to her. At the perfect moment, she turned her hips and dinked a pass right over to my wing. The ball skipped perfectly into my run. Okay. Now what?
I couldn’t make another pass. And there was not enough time to dribble to gain more ground. In the two seconds that I had the ball at my feet, I realized that I had only one option: Get the ball into a dangerous area, and get it there now. I wish that I could say it was totally calculated. That would’ve made it an excellent display of skill. But in that moment, I thought one thing: “Just get it in there. Give us a chance.”
I took one touch to push the ball ahead and looked up quickly toward Brazil’s goal. I saw a blur of four yellow jerseys and a green one (not my teammate — their goalkeeper). At that moment, I had to pass the ball to an invisible teammate. I knew that somewhere outside my peripheral vision, Abby Wambach was sprinting furiously into the box. I didn’t know where she was. But I knew where she would be.
I had to hit it with my left foot. The problem is that I’m not naturally left-footed and usually I don’t have as much power as I do with my right. So I hit it pretty much as hard as I could. When I swung my foot into the ball, I felt like I made good contact. That doesn’t always mean accuracy. Ever hooked a chip shot on the golf course? If so, you kind of have an idea of what can go wrong. But that’s assuming the ball is standing still. Imagine if someone rolled the ball toward you with some backspin. From that distance, the ball could’ve sailed into the stands or right into the keeper’s arms. When I looked up, I didn’t have any expectations. I didn’t see the ball. I just saw a wave of bodies cresting near the net.
A second later, I saw the net shake. Then the stadium shook. It was absolute pandemonium. Abby ran to the corner flag to celebrate in front of the U.S. fans. I was on the complete opposite side of the field. I took off after her, but about half way there, the enormity of the moment finally hit me. I couldn’t hold in my emotion anymore. I jumped up and did some kind of weird fist-pump thing. It wasn’t elegant. I was outside of my body at that point. It was like I was living a movie.
At the time, I didn’t even know the full magnitude of what had happened. When the ball whipped in over the heads of the Brazilian defenders, Abby had an impossibly small window to head the ball into. The timing involved is like ballet. Abby had to make her leap while the ball’s flight was still swerving. She had to rise up to meet it at the perfect apex, all while the keeper’s fists are flying right at her face. The concentration and precision involved, not to mention the raw courage, is unbelievable. There is no margin of error. If the ball is two inches to the left, or her jump is a millisecond late, it’s not going in from that angle. As perfect as the cross was, there is only one person in women’s soccer who could’ve finished it.
When I finally got to Abby, I did a full-speed leap into her arms like a flying monkey. I probably bruised her sternum. I wish I could say I said something meaningful to her. It was more of a wild-eyed, joyful, (R-rated) tirade.
The rest is history. We won the game on penalty kicks and ended up advancing to the World Cup Final against Japan, where we experienced our own heartache. When we returned home from Germany, I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that we were being asked to go on talk shows and late night TV. America is all about winning. We were all devastated that we didn’t win the final, and yet I had little girls and old men coming up to me on the street and asking to take pictures. I’ve never seen so much enthusiasm for a runner-up. All anybody wanted to talk about was how we fought back to beat Brazil.
When I remember that crazy play now, there’s something that feels uniquely American about it. And it wasn’t just the play itself. There we were in Germany, down by a goal with 60 seconds left, about to have our worst finish in World Cup history, and as Brazil was trying to kill off the game, the fans were shouting “USA, USA, USA.”
It wasn’t a purely patriotic thing. It certainly wasn’t just the American fans. It was nearly the entire stadium. I think the world appreciated how we played the beautiful game that summer. In 50 years, I’ll remember the atmosphere more than I’ll remember the perfect cross.